Photo Credit: Frankzed via Compfight cc
The echidna is most well known for its idiosyncratic, startling image as a kind of bristling, peroxide-tipped inspiration to the punks that shook the world for 100 days. Yet most people don’t know that as a product released to the market by the trudging process of Evolution some 50 million years ago, this ancient mass of spikes is the world’s oldest surviving mammal. Having descended from an aquatic monotreme, a common ancestor of the platypus, it took a few million years for it to finally adapt to the terra nullius of the land.

The echidna’s moniker is the “spiny ant-eater” and it is classified as a monotreme, which means that along with the its evolutionary cousin the platypus, it is the only surviving egg-laying mammal on the planet, making it one of Australia’s many true treasures of fauna. The fact of its biological rarity, and its characteristic, brazen swagger have made it virtually synonymous with Australia, and souvenir stores are stocked to the rafters with its plush surrogates.

 

Four species of short-beaked echidna are found in Australia, while their long-beaked (and presumably less honest) counterparts are found in New Guinea. These are the echidna’s only habitations. They are solitary animals and are easily recognised by their coarse hair and by their many flaxen spines. They are found all over the country yet are not belligerent and territorial, and are classified for the purposes of Heritage as “common” (a splodge of good news). Even more common is their silver, two dimensional life as a head shot on the 5 cent coin. They are intolerant of harsh conditions (temperatures, not public censure), preferring to reside in caves and in forest undergrowth. At times, they squat in the burrows and hide-outs of rabbits and wombats. Because of their name and ostensibly homologous snouts, which function as both a mouth and nose, it was thought the echidna was related to the South American anteater, but this has in fact been disproven.

The echidna burrows for its food using its strong limbs and claws, and in an act of dexterity that would make Gene Simmons wince, sucks its prey disdainfully with its long, slender tongue. Its diet and victims, a give-away from its nickname, is composed of ants and termites, though the long-beaked variety is known to feast on worms and insect larvae. Surprisingly enough, they are adequate swimmers, known to groom and bathe themselves in local water systems.

The reproduction rituals of echidnas are quite bizarre. The male echidna has arguably an excess of four penis heads, with equally distributed functionality. During the mating season between June and September, up to ten males line up in a “train” to test their luck of the female’s approval. This curious display in nature of matriarchy should be a source of inspiration for gender rights in the human domain. However, the echidna’s numerical genital superiority should be hidden at all costs from masculinity-vexed male humans.

The echidna’s adaptation to different country-wide habitats, coupled with the public uproar and PR disaster that would result from its endangerment, means its prospects of continuing to thrive are quite high, all factors boding well for its future as a counter-cultural icon.